It was only 4:30pm when my sister and I arrived at the Hallstatt train depot. The mountains hid any last rays of daylight and our first view of the village was the inviting glow of street lamps, outlining the silhouettes of two churches and the mighty mountains high above the village. We walked down to the docks and waited for The Stephanie, Hallstatt’s own commuter ferry, to pick us up. We were two of three passengers.
A World Heritage site and a true charm of Europe, Hallstatt, Austria is nestled in the Dachstein Mountain range of the Alps. After the ferry dropped us off , my sister and I meandered along the dimly lit waterfront to our Bed and Breakfast. Maria welcomed us and helped carry our bags up three flights of stairs to her attic-turned-delightful-guestroom. I felt like Pollyanna in the best way.
Maria asked politely, yet curiously, why two twenty-somethings would choose to spend 4 days in Hallstatt during the slowest time of year. I didn’t realize that November was a slow season and we hadn’t yet seen the village in daylight. Our host’s question and implicit concern made me wonder if our decision to visit was a good one. Our family had been sending photos of their lively Thanksgiving celebration at home, and here my sister and I were in a dark, sleepy little village in the Alps, alone.
Because Hallstatt sits engulfed by mountains, there isn’t a typical sunrise that marks the start of the day; rather, the sun just peaks over the mountaintops in the late morning. Our first morning, and every morning thereafter, we indulged in an Austrian-style breakfast of crusty rolls, sausage and cheese as the sun began to light up the village. As we drank a pot of coffee, the photos that had inspired my visit were coming to life.
“With no place to be, no distractions, not even wifi access, time was irrelevant.”
During our first day there, we checked out all the open stores and ventured into the Protestant and Catholic churches, of which there were two. I had been hoping to visit the nearby ice caves and tour the world’s very first salt mine; however, I learned that both of these famous sights were closed for the season. Slowly, my sister and I realized that we had done everything on our itinerary in just one day.
I began to feel anxious, my mind running ahead, thinking about our next European destination.
We continued wandering around, asking ourselves: ‘what’s next?’. Then, we turned down a desolate street that brought us to the Hallstatter Lake.
I can still feel the brisk breeze of the fresh mountain air on my face as I took in the view of a fisherman slowly returning to his bay. Two swans in all their grace floated above the water and the picturesque village stood in the distance. It dawned on me right then that I was visiting one of the world’s most remarkable destinations and I felt like I had it all to myself.
“…we didn’t fall into the trap of a full itinerary. It was about having a full experience instead.”
With no place to be, no distractions, not even wifi access, time was irrelevant. What did it matter if all the traditional tourist attractions were closed? I could spend my days reading on the docks by the lake, thinking and reflecting and just being. In fact, I finished a two-pound novel while I was there, a literal and figurative weight lifted off my back. My sister and I became quick regulars at the general store that had an actual espresso machine, not the automatic kind that had been all too common in our travels. Sometimes, we stopped in for a cappuccino twice a day. We strolled through narrow and beautifully antiquated cobblestone streets, observing the Austrian style cottages, all similar in architecture but unique in décor and character. We watched locals decorate their homes for Christmas with Evergreen branches and candles.
We were travelers in awe of their everyday.
Hallstatt was only the beginning of our month-long European journey, but it so perfectly set the tone for our travels. It put us in a mindset of peace and joy, and gave us clarity so that we didn’t fall into the trap of a full itinerary. It was about having a full experience instead, one that emphasized the importance of being present rather than being busy.